Let’s get one thing clear: Parenting is hard. Parenting is really, really hard! I am a parent of two wonderful, energetic, curious, and sometimes mischievous kids. My little ones are five and eight years old and watching them grow and develop is a true joy. Even therapists’ children have meltdowns, blows ups, power struggles, and temper tantrums (and so do therapists). We are all human and we need to give ourselves and our kids grace as we experience growing pains together. The good news is that there are strategies, backed by neuroscience, that can significantly reduce these outbursts or at least reduce the time spent in “meltdown mode.”
What is happening when our kids (or when we) are “losing it?”
When we feel unsafe, upset, or triggered somehow, our central nervous system goes into what I call the “hot zone.” We have all experienced this. The “hot zone” or “hot system” is when we feel our bodies tense up, our faces get hot, and our hearts start to race. When we are in this state, we respond with one of three survival strategies, “fight, flight, or freeze.” When we are in this zone, it is difficult, if not impossible to think logically, weigh options, be empathetic or learn anything new because our central nervous system is prompting our fight/flight/freeze response. From a neurobiological standpoint, when our system becomes hot, our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us think logically, regulates our emotions, learns new things and helps us weigh pros and cons goes “off-line.” There are literally less neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex when we are in the “Hot Zone”. When we are in survival mode we cannot think clearly or learn new things, because in that moment our body is solely focused on surviving. When our children get into their “hot system,” and fight/flight/freeze is activated (i.e. temper tantrums, ignoring commands, yelling, etc.), parents often respond by raising their voices, taking away privileges, lecturing, and sometimes spanking. Rarely do these approaches work, and if the child does change their behavior for the better, it is usually due to fear rather than having learned a lesson that will stick. I’m sure you would agree that we don’t want our kids to be fearfully compliant, but rather we want to lovingly teach them how to be healthy, happy, successful, well-adjusted children who can regulate their emotions and show resiliency during life’s inevitable ups and downs.
We need to help our children get from their “hot systems” to their “cool systems” before attempting to teach them. Think about what works for you? When you have had a stressful day and you begin to process with your partner, do you want them to point out all the mistakes you made? Probably not. You’re probably seeking validation, understanding, empathy, maybe even a hug. This will help you feel better, and your central nervous system will begin to “cool down” so that you can begin to process the day, learn from the mistakes you may have made, and develop a plan for a better tomorrow.
The interventions that you need to calm down are the same interventions kids need and want. Their problems may seem ridiculous and dare I say “childish” to us. At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s because they’re children. You may hear something as minor as, “OH NO! I wanted my blue shirt, not my red shirt. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!” This “problem” is simple for us to manage, but to a child, this could be a big challenge and the upset is very real to them. The scientific explanation for this “childish” behavior is that their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. In fact, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until approximately age 25. Remember, this is the part of the brain that helps us make calm logical decisions and regulates our emotions. When your toddler, child, or teenager is having a meltdown over something you find silly, remember that they have a much different brain than you do. It is our job as parents to help with the development of our child’s brain. This is called co-regulation. Until a toddler can self-regulate, they look to their parent to help them regulate their own emotions. If we are in our “hot system” as well, we cannot help them with this task. Therefore, we need to remain calm, connect with our children during a major meltdown, and help them regulate their emotions prior to any discipline.
The number one question I get when talking to parents about this new approach is, “Isn’t this just coddling? Aren’t we reinforcing bad behaviors?” This is not about coddling, giving in to every demand and temper tantrum, or being more permissive. This is about truly teaching our children. What is the purpose of discipline? Is it to punish for punishment’s sake or is it to teach our children a lesson? The word discipline means “to teach.” In order to be successful teachers, we must make sure that the parts of our children’s brains that can learn and incorporate new lessons and information are engaged, activated, and “online.” This means helping them get from their “hot system” to their “cool system.” In order to do this, we must first make sure we are in our “cool system.” If we are regulated, then we can help our children regulate their bodies and emotions. For my son, I simply hug him, take a few deep breaths with him and sometimes I will even tell him what is happening in my body as I calm down. “I am feeling my muscles relax and I am able to breathe better now.” As I do this, I can quickly see and feel his body settle down and relax as well. Once he is in his cool system, we can now have a logical conversation with our prefrontal cortexes online and engaged. Once he is in his cool system, there is really very little work I need to do. He knows he was acting “out of control” and usually apologizes and tells me how he could do better next time. If at that time a consequence does need to be administered, he is now in a more logical and controlled state of mind and is more likely to accept the consequence and learn from it as well.
Steps for helping a child get into his cool zone:
Every child is different, so you will need to learn what works best for you and your child, therefore these are simply general rules that you can try with your own children when they are clearly in their hot zone.
- Make sure you are in your cool zone. If not, get there or tag your partner in to help your child. You can tell if you’re in your hot zone by mindfully checking in with your body. How does it feel? Are your muscles tense? Is your heart racing? Is your jaw clenched? If so, you are in your hot zone and little good will come from an interaction at this point. Do what you can to “down-regulate” or calm your own emotions down. This might mean walking away, taking some deep breaths, or asking your partner to take over while you take a break.
- If you are cool and calm, then you can proceed to help your child regulate as well. Get down to his level and make eye contact. This reduces the “threat level” and intimidation your child might be feeling, and lets your child know you are with him.
- Use a gentle touch or a long hug. Take a few deep breaths and feel your own body start to settle down. This will usually begin to slow their breathing and heart rate down as well.
- You may want to describe what is happening in your body to your child. “I feel my muscles relax, my breathing is slowing down, and I feel calmer. Do you feel that yet in your body”?
- Once their bodies begin to settle down, help your child name the emotion(s) they are feeling. “It looks like you are feeling mad right now. Is that right?” Kids often don’t know what they are feeling and naming it will automatically help alleviate some of the built-up tension.
- Once they can name the emotion, it can help to help them identify where in their body they feel the emotion. This is a very foreign concept for a lot of people, but emotions “show up” in our bodies. We feel them in our hearts, chest, stomachs, jaw, clenched fists, throbbing headaches, etc. Identifying where in our body we feel emotions can often help children begin to regulate them better.
- Once your child is calm, you can have a conversation about the issues at hand. It can help to ask them questions regarding their behavior, rather than lecture. “Do you know why we don’t hit”? If they are truly in their cool zone (and are at an age where they know the answer) they will probably be able to think logically now and tell you. “…because it hurts people”? Ask them what they could do differently next time. “Next time you get angry, how can you express your anger in a safe way”? This helps them problem solve and lets them know that it is okay to be angry but hitting is not acceptable.
I know this might sound too good to be true, and yes, it takes time to practice and get into a good rhythm with your child, but I can assure you, that when you and your child spend more time in your “cool systems” life will be easier. It takes more time and patients to help your child practice these skills now but will save you hours of temper tantrums and arguments later down the road because you will be teaching your child how to regulate his own emotions. Pretty soon he will be better in control of his own emotions, and you will not need to fight the battles as much. Parenting will always be hard but using this approach will result in fewer temper tantrums more meaningful connections, and valuable lessons learned for both the parent and the child.